413 Advanced Editing, March 7, 2005
Narrative journalism – sometimes referred to as journalism with a magazine style, or as literary journalism – has become more and more popular in American newspapers over the past two decades. Part of this is that there is less emphasis on the “breaking-news scoop” in newspapers because, well, it’s a lost cause. Broadcast media (especially cable for the “world” stories) always had the advantage of producing news more quickly. And now, if newspapers are once again perking up and looking for ahead-of-the-pack news transmission, they’re doing it through their Web sites, not on pulp.
So newspapers turned to new story forms to help give readers the depth that gives print the edge over other media. Experiments took place. Roy Peter Clark invented (or at least popularized) the serial narrative – a series of short “chapters” that would be published one after another for a stretch of days – 36, 29, 14 or so. Each “chapter” had to conform to a story format: beginning, middle and end. Each had to end with something that would pull the reader back for the next day’s installment.
If you’d like to take a look at his two most famous serials, check
“Three Little Words”
And for another famous newspaper serial, see Mark Bowden’s “Blackhawk Down” from the Philadelphia Inquirer at http://inquirer.philly.com/packages/somalia/sitemap.asp
Unfortunately for those studying newspaper design, these are formatted for the Web so we can’t analyze what the print copy editors did to present the stories.
Obviously, the serial format was for a Big Story, not a routine village board report. But for those, there were experimentations with the standard inverted pyramid, a style invented for very practical reasons. The inverted pyramid is great for telegraphing the most important news quickly and in an ordered fashion. Great reading it generally ain’t.
Newspapers were looking for readers. Many, if not all, were open to loosening the “rules.” You began to get hard news stories with soft (feature-style) news ledes. Long introductory grafs (paragraphs). Anecdotes everywhere you look. Increasing use of literary devices (foreshadowing, for example).
I LOVE good writing. I love narrative journalism. I’ll applaud a well-written anecdotal lede every time. But I’ve seen all of those forms abused -- or appear to be abused because of the editing presentation. As an appreciator of evolving forms of non-fiction, I can overlook the “training” mistakes. As a journalist, I cannot let those mistakes get in the paper if I can help it. I find at times it becomes an ethical argument about the effects of viewpoint and framing on truth. Most of the time, the abuses are “merely” sloppy and inexact – journalistic sins.
Here are some of the pitfalls and why they’re a problem:
Newspaper layout – and now Web layout, too – is designed so that the reader generally gets the first part of a story, not all of it, at the first encounter. Very often, with a delayed or long anecdotal lede, the point of the story is not made until after the jump. As we know from many a readership survey, most people don’t read that far. So you’ve lost the chance to convey the most important part of the story.
Anecdotal ledes are tricky. You have to get just the right one to convey the tone and point of the story – and it might be a complex story – and it has to be interesting enough to pull the reader in. It must be accurate. Too often, it’s just the cleverest tale, not the one that’s emblematic of the story. That’s misleading. That’s wrong.
In a news story, and especially in a crime story, elements can be chosen for narrative effect while the truth suffers. Think of the stories reported from “inside the head” of the accused murderer, for example. Come on! Or think of a crime bust being reported from the point of view of a 6-year-old boy who was asleep when the police rammed down the doors and rushed into his family’s apartment to arrest his parents in front of his eyes. That would be a fascinating way into the story. But it would bias the reader immediately. With a careful, skilled reporter, new forms can be golden. But dangers lurk.
Copy editors charged with handling these kinds of stories within the rigid formats and considerable demands of front-page layout have a challenge. There are ways to make these stories work and work well, but they must be carefully tended. In this exercise, you are to figure out as many ways as you can to make a story/layout package in what is essentially a magazine design (ignore the bottom half and you have a magazine doublespread) deliver the news it must in the A1 space it’s been given.
Here’s the page (Professor Schwalbe has a digital version for projection):
Questions for discussion (referring to the “Mother’s Nightmare” story):